Exploring Downtown San Diego

San Diego Skyline

Downtown San Diego is the thriving heart of San Diego, densely populated with businesses and residences and a popular destination for retail, dining, and nightlife. It is home to Horton Plaza, Petco Park, and the Convention Center, as well as several theatres, and dozens of restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs. It is a pedestrian-friendly area, with ample (although sometimes pricey) parking, and is easily accessible from several freeways. The San Diego trolley and several bus routes also service much of Downtown. Its boundaries follow Interstate 5 to the north and the east, and the San Diego Bay to the south and west.

Downtown: Then and Now

The region is one with a storied past. It was first envisioned as a destination by Alonzo Horton in the 1860’s, who purchased acres of land and encouraged development; however, just over a decade after his efforts, Downtown had become a seedy area, peppered with saloons, gambling halls, and brothels—Wyatt Earp famously set up shop on Fifth Avenue. The area did not completely shed its seedy reputation until nearly a century later, and it was not until 1975 that urban renewal combined with law enforcement began to transform the area into the cultural destination it is today.

Now, Downtown stands proud as a dining and entertainment destination, and is home to many of the cities’ prominent businesses. Thanks to careful restoration efforts, many of the original Victorian-era buildings still stand, including the newly restored Balboa Theater, and many original buildings in the Gaslamp. Up-and-coming neighborhoods, such as the East Village area around Petco Park, are a hotspot of modern design, giving the Downtown area a unique blend of historic and contemporary architecture.

Navigating the Downtown Area

The Downtown area is divided into several neighborhoods, including the Gaslamp Quarter, Little Italy, the East Village, and Seaport Village/the Marina, as well as neighboring areas including Balboa Park, and Bankers’ Hill.

The Gaslamp forms the main North-South corridor along Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth avenues, running for ten blocks between the Convention Center and Broadway. Its street level is peppered with restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs, while upper floors are inhabited by offices and residences. The first area to see revitalization efforts downtown, the Gaslamp is the most densely populated stretch of restaurants, bars, and clubs in Downtown.

Little Italy began as a humble fishing village but has transformed into a vibrant arts district within downtown. India Street, the main North-South artery, and its cross streets are peppered with art and design stores and galleries, casual coffee shops, and an eclectic mix of restaurants and bars. Just a mile from downtown, and easily accessible by trolley, it offers a good alternative to the oft-crowded Gaslamp. It goes without saying that there are several excellent Italian restaurants within its boundaries.

The East Village is an up-and-coming area of Downtown San Diego, thanks to the opening of Petco Park in 2004. The area, located east of Sixth Avenue, north of the ballpark, and southwest of Interstate 5, has seen an explosion of condos, many which now house trendy restaurants, bars, and boutique shops on their first floors. The dining and nightlife scene here is a bit more casual than at neighboring Gaslamp restaurants and clubs, with many businesses aiming to cater to neighborhood residents and other locals.

Bankers Hill is the neighborhood between Downtown San Diego and uptown’s Hillcrest. It borders the east edge of Balboa Park and its main north-south thoroughfares are Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues. It has long been peppered with businesses and residences, but is also home to an array of excellent restaurants. The area is just a mile from Downtown’s Gaslamp area, although ambitious walkers should be aware that it is an uphill climb. Luckily, cabs, as well as parking, are plentiful.

Balboa Park is San Diego’s largest urban park and cultural center, spanning 1,200 acres and holding the San Diego Zoo, museums, performing arts venues, botanical gardens, and public recreational facilities including a pool, baseball fields, tennis courts, bocce courts, a disc golf course, a velodrome, a golf course, and hiking and biking trails. The park begins at the northeast corner of Downtown, and has several driving entrances around the perimeter of the park. Entering at Sixth and Laurel Streets in Banker’s Hill will put you on El Prado, the main thoroughfare through the cultural area of the park, providing access to museums, theaters, and restaurants.

Seaport Village is located at the southeast corner of Downtown, between the Harbor piers and the Convention Center, just before the Embarcadero Marina Park. The area is a pedestrian-friendly space filled with over fifty shops, galleries and casual eateries. Street performers and artists often set up along the winding foot paths, providing for a leisurely and family-friendly strolls, shopping, and people watching.

Other areas in San Diego’s Downtown include Cortez Hill, Columbia, and an area known as the Core. Columbia and the Core are downtown’s main business districts, contain many of the skyline’s high-rise office towers, and Cortez Hill is a mostly residential area. Downtown is bordered by the urban neighborhoods of Uptown and the South Bay.

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